For Reel

12 Years a Slave (2013)
November 16, 2013, 10:59 pm
Filed under: Reviews | Tags: , ,

Director: Steve McQueen
5 Stars
12 Years a SlaveOne of the running themes that has permeated Hollywood in the latter half of the year has been survival–a theme most explicitly explored in Gravity, All is Lost, and Captain Phillips. It comes as some surprise that 12 Years a Slave fits so easily into this grouping, even as its subject matter raises the stakes from one man’s story to that of a poisoned nation. Although pundits of the film rightfully argue that it might have educational value–it is indeed shocking that a movie so forthright about this period in American history is such a rarity–director Steve McQueen doesn’t simply treat the film as an objective or even medicinal look at a nation’s shame. The genius of the narrative is the significance that its emotional appeal comes from, in the Hitchcockian tradition, its wrongfully accused protagonist’s struggle to survive and find justice. As a middle-class free man, Solomon Northrop (Chiwetel Ejiofor) is at a remove from his fellow slaves, making him not only a victim of slavery but a privileged witness to it. Just as Northrop is taken from relatively comfortable living into the bowels of human cruelty, so too is the audience uprooted from the comfort of their movie seats into McQueen’s unflinching depiction of hell. Although engaging with this type of identification is certainly not necessary to elaborate on the evils of slavery, it is one that forces audience members to not simply view history from a distance, but to imagine the sheer horror of participating in it themselves.

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